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Sheltering in Plato’s cave

January 21, 2013

I’ve been trying for some time to describe certain aspects of modern thought as something like a “materialist gnosticism.” Now the always-worthwhile David Bentley Hart has written in First Things about Carl Jung and “therapeutic gnosticism.” It’s a long article but worth reading in its entirety. It discusses Jung’s “Red Book,” his claims to visionary wisdom, and his reduction of the impulse to gnostic longing to a banal narcissism, am embrace of the darkness of Plato’s allegorical cave:

The distinctly modern metaphysical picture of reality is one that makes it possible to regard this world as a cave filled only with flickering shadows and yet also to cherish those shadows for their very insubstantiality, and even to be grateful for the shelter that the cave provides against the great emptiness outside, where no Sun of the Good ever shines. With enough therapy and sufficient material comforts, even gnostic despair can become a form of disenchantment without regret, sweetened by a new enchantment with the self in its particularity. Gnosticism reduced to bare narcissism—which, come to think of it, might be an apt definition of late modernity as a whole.

It’s a wonderful image, and a brilliant way to sum up the disparate transcendence-denials of Jung, or Freud, or Wittgenstein, or Yeats, under a single heading. But I wonder if it’s not too sure of itself. Hart almost says that this happens inevitably when gnosticism finds itself confronted with the realities of the world it had sought to escape; but he does, briefly, acknowledge another possibility:

The gnostic expression of spiritual longing is the most extreme and hazardous religious venture of all; it is the final wager that the soul makes, placing the entire universe in the balance in its search for redemption. If it should be subdued by the archons of the age, the only spiritual possibilities left are tragic resignation or banal contentment.

Do all of the late moderns choose contentment rather than resignation? What marks the difference between the two? Are these the only two possibilities? “Contentment” seems right for Jung, given what I know of him. I might be a bit less harsh on Freud though; whatever his flaws, he does insist on the importance of relating to an Other person in order to even understand oneself. And doesn’t Wittgenstein do an admirably job avoiding contentment while steadfastly refusing any transcendental claim? Doesn’t Yeats avoid the resolution of the gnostic wager by diverting it into art? These figures seem to me emblematic of the gnosticism of “late modernity,” but I don’t know that in all of these cases they reduce it to “bare narcissism.” Each case seems to call for individual attention.

Hart is, however, on to something in his dichotomy between resignation and contentment. When gnosticism fails, attention has to turn from without to within, at which point the only question left is: can that be enough? “Resignation” is perhaps what happens when the answer is “no,” an answer I tend to associate with the idea of Guilt.

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